Choose a side. Liberal or Conservative. Raise taxes or lower taxes. Fossil fuels or renewable energy. The list seems endless.
And once you’ve chosen a side, make sure you spend considerable time and energy convincing the other side why you are right and they are wrong. You won’t succeed, but do it anyway. The more forceful and angry you are the better.
It seems like that’s what our interactions have come to lately. It’s easy to believe we’re growing more divided every day. There’s little hope we’ll start working together anytime soon.
You want some hope?
Spend time with Peter Yarrow.
Contrary to what you might think from the guy who co-wrote “Puff, the Magic Dragon”, Peter doesn’t take a pie-in-the-sky, everything’s peachy approach to making things better. He’s got a very clear understanding of the issues facing us today, and he knows how serious many of them are. But he also knows, from more than 50 years of real world experience, that people CAN come together to improve things. And he’s still working every day to help make that happen.
I was truly honored to sit down with Peter – an icon of American music and social activism – to talk about his life’s work of trying to make the world a better place, and the role his music, and the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary, has in those efforts. Peter assured me that talking about his activism and his music would be pretty easy. “Activism and music are inseparably integrated to me,” he said.
Peter, Paul, and Mary began performing in 1961, a time of profound change in the United States, especially with regard to the civil rights movement. Peter had graduated from Cornell with a degree in psychology in 1959, but decided to put his heart into folk music.
He said, “I had seen the ability of music, when it’s sung together, to create community. To create a sense of closeness, of mutual vulnerability and empowerment, linking hearts and creating greater acceptance and togetherness in society — in such a way that it can help to make a more just, a more caring and more peaceful world.”
“That was what, for me, what music was about. It was never about entertaining people. Peter Paul and Mary were always thrilled to see how our music, our message and our intentions were understood and embraced by people.”
Through music, Peter saw people transformed. Not just about how they saw themselves but how they saw themselves as part of their society. “Seeing music have this effect was the spark that altered my consciousness about who I was and what I could do in life and in society,” Peter recalled.
Yarrow once said that folk music invites the listeners to participate and that the artist and the listener have to “find this together”. I asked him what he meant by “find this together”.
“For me and for Peter Paul and Mary, performing was, and still is, an exercise of finding a mutual sensitivity to each other – the performer to the audience and back and forth – a place where you want to go together in terms of that moment,” he replied. “We’re moving them with a sense of mutual participation. And if you are a performer who is sensitive to that and listening to that and asking for that participation, then it’s a very different exercise from getting up there and saying, ‘Watch me do my stuff.’”
There was no better example of this than when Peter, Paul, and Mary sang “If I Had a Hammer” at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington. The trio sang that song with – not to, but with – an estimated 250,000 people.
Peter said, “For us, singing at that march was an absolute turning point in our lives. If we had just gone up there and sung the songs, it would have been one thing. And for everybody that march was extraordinary and transformational; but for us, it was super transformational because they were singing with us. The music allowed us to say, ‘We are together.’ “
It doesn’t seem to me that there are a lot of musicians striving publicly for the kind of unity of community and spirit that Yarrow was talking about. He agreed. He feels that the music industry today is primarily concerned about this quarter’s profits. Industry executives in the 1960s were equally – if not more – concerned about the significance of the music they released.
“The leadership of the record companies was making decisions based upon, not just the earning potential, but the social/political value of music – how that music feeds into the best of America. People like Mo Ostin, Joe Smith and Clive Davis really cared about music not just as something that made money, but something that helped support the positive changes that were taking place in America.”
However, Yarrow is excited about some of the work musicians are doing today, even if, at least for now, they’re not getting a lot of publicity.
“Music of consciousness is still there in the grassroots sense,” he said. “There are wonderful writers and singers. Remember when there was a big movement to take down the Confederate flag in South Carolina after the murders in the church in Charleston? Peter Mulvey wrote a powerful, moving, song, ‘Take Down Your Flag.’ and he put it out on the Internet. He invited other songwriters to create verses that added to the song’s advocacy and 200 new verses were posted. You go to Standing Rock and there’s an endless succession of singers and songwriters and musicians going there to support it. You come to the Unity Concert in South Dakota in support of restorative justice, that my daughter, Bethany, co-organized, and all you hear is new socially conscious songs.”
“These songwriters exist. They’re not in the media spotlight, but they exist. It’s going to be happening with folk music and music of consciousness again. Because it’s needed. Because the people who have that in their heart to do this kind of work – and they are there – are going to be a part of the action.”
Make no mistake, Peter Yarrow is not some old hippie folkster looking back on what has been. He’s been to Standing Rock to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. He performs at the Unity concerts his daughter Bethany Yarrow puts on to support the rights of the Lakota Sioux tribes, the anti-fracking demonstrations, the divestment demonstrations in front of banks, and more. He is acutely aware of the growing divisions in our society and how music still moves people to rise above them.
“We’re dealing with a cultural shift that allowed a point of view of selfishness, and greed, and bullying as a sport to emerge. We’ve watched what I call the ‘black hole of empathy’ invade our culture. If we want to turn around from this, it’s not just political. It’s about where our ethics are coming from, where our morality is coming from, where our hearts are coming from. That’s why so much of my effort have been, for the last 20 years, so focused on education of the heart, education of the social and emotional growth of kids and their character. For things to really change, attitudes as well as policies must change.”
And as he’s done most of his life, Peter Yarrow is not just singing about change. He’s doing something to make change happen. He co-founded, led, and continues to support his educational non-profit Operation Respect and its Don’t Laugh at Me social/emotional learning program for children.
As stated on their web site, Operation Respect is “dedicated to transforming schools, summer camps, and other youth-serving organizations into respectful, safe and compassionate climates of learning, free of bullying, ridicule and violence.” They are in 22,000 schools in the United States, in 63% of the schools in Israel (both Arabic and Jewish), over 1,000 schools in Ukraine as well as various countries in Europe and Asia.
Yarrow has seen the success of these programs first-hand. The programs, he said, “create a strong sense of community within a school. Within that strong sense of community, you have an emphasis on ‘us’ rather than ‘me’. What happens is that the kids feel more respected. They feel less frightened and less threatened. They care about each other. You see that their marks go up. You see that the teachers’ satisfaction goes up. You see that their attendance goes up. It also tamps down the kind of fear and hatred that sparks in a time of war and post-war conflict such as the on-the-ground reality in the Middle East.”
You’d probably think that this folk musician who fights for civil rights, woman’s rights, native American rights, and saving the environment is a Liberal. He is. But Yarrow takes a remarkably empathetic view of the results of the 2016 election, the upcoming administration, and what we – meaning anyone who cares about the country – need to do going forward.
“I think what really is happening is that huge segments of society see that democracy has been weakened by big corporate and private money virtually buying elections. In many ways, the people’s needs and choices are no longer determining policy. Painfully, democracy is, in many ways, no longer working,” Yarrow said. “There are vast portions of society that have been left out. I think the best way to describe what has happened is that inequity has grown so large that the same kind of anger about inequity fired up both the Bernie supporters and the Trump supporters.”
“The people are really pissed off at the two-party system. If you’re in a position where you say, ’I will not stand for the continuation of the status quo and I don’t believe that any change will come to me and I cannot live this way anymore,’ then, frankly, there’s some logic and validity to a vote that says, ‘I’ll vote for anything that might bring change, even if it’s disrupting and questionable as to whether it will get better or worse for me.’”
Although Yarrow is concerned that some of the gains the progressive movement has made might be reversed over the next few years, he is confident that people if people from both sides of the divide can be brought together, to protect democracy and work towards economic and social equity, we can once again keep American society on track.
I was struck by how deeply he feels about this when I asked him about the songs “If I Had a Hammer” and “Blowing in the Wind” – two classic Peter, Paul, and Mary songs and two quintessential protest songs.
“I disagree with your premise,” Yarrow said. “Those songs were not written as protest songs. They were written as an affirmation.”
I stopped talking and just listened…
“Listen to ‘If I Had a Hammer,’” Peter explained. “What is it saying? It’s saying that if we are not vigilant, if we don’t hammer out a warning, if we don’t sing out danger, what will happen? It says justice will disappear. It’s the hammer of justice. It’s our freedom that will disappear. And then the last line of each verse tells us how to do it: the love between our brothers and our sisters. What is it protesting? Nothing! It’s affirming that there’s a danger to our liberty and our freedom and to justice if we are not vigilant. And the mechanism for being vigilant is loving each other. That is not a protest.”
“‘This Land is Your Land’ was written by Woody Guthrie in response to the writing of ‘God Bless America’ by Irving Berlin, which offended him. Woody said, “This land is your land. This land is my land.” It’s not a protest, it was an affirmation. Nobody living can ever stop me as I go walking down freedom highway. This land is made for you and me.”
“No song that Peter, Paul, and Mary ever sang – and this is true of all folk music – was simply a protest against something. It was always, also, the intention of those songs to build something wonderful, better, more humane, more equitable. That’s folk music.”
After Peter and I talked, he emailed me with some additional thoughts. I’ve shared some of these below.
This will be, perhaps, America’s (and the world’s) greatest challenge in terms of surviving as a democratic, ethical, society. I’m braced for a remarkable, extraordinarily challenging but ultimately successful time in which we pull out all the stops as we pursue the work, the good fight, the eternal struggle.
We have no choice.
There are two kinds of efforts that I believe we need to embrace:
One, I believe that we must reach across the dividing lines. Those of good heart and good intent in our country must not allow this division to continue or the forces of Fascism will find an easy home. Allowing the present division to sustain would weaken our efforts in the extreme and perhaps even render them all but useless. Therefore, coming together as a nation is a first priority.
Those who voted differently from the way we did do not deserve our hatred or our scorn. They have their own frequently painful stories of abandonment, disappointment and outrage at the inequity that has befallen them and this nation. In many, if not most, cases they had a very good reason for voting the way they did – that is certainly not a reason for us to hate them (though we have been manipulated into the perspective of feeling that such hatred is justifiable).
The vast majority of his [Donald Trump’s] supporters are fellow country men and women who deserve a hearing and deserve to be embraced as our family though we may not, and may never, agree with them in terms of their view of the political issues of our times. Making this rapprochement will take time and be a huge and difficult task. But, for me, I know that certain kinds of music might be a key to opening hearts, finding common ground and allowing opposing sides to listen to each other, empathize with each other’s narratives and come to terms with the fact of the imperative that we must come together as Americans or everything we value and cherish will be in grave jeopardy.
Our second task is to mobilize, organize and activate at the grass roots level, as well as in the electoral political sphere, as never before in order to meet what is clearly going to be the most comprehensive assault on everything for which we have championed, some for our entire adult lives, to create a land of justice, freedom and equity. Though we, in the past and even now, have had our serious faults as a nation, we have nevertheless been a unique beacon of hope, strength and in the achievement of a successful civil society for the rest of the world.
So it is that goodness of heart, civility and generosity of spirit extended to our fellow countrymen and women will be key in our efforts to mobilize and eradicate the divisions and void that have come about, leaving us a nation bitterly divided. Most essential will be our ability to gather our hearts together in common purpose and assert once more the goodness of spirit in our country that truly characterizes us when we are at our best.
It is with the music and its ability to bring people together in ways that are sometimes difficult to achieve with words alone that I will do all I can in this regard. The song Lift Us Up has taken me into this arena in powerful ways and I am hell-and-heaven-bent on bringing my entire heart and soul to this task.
To keep up with the latest on Peter, including his concert dates, go to his website at www.PeterYarrow.net.
For more information on Operation Respect, go to www.OperationRespect.org.